distracted driving

LED Billboards: A Bright Spot

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

If you’ve got smartphone-addicted teenagers in the house –or a spouse, even–you recognize the fact that new and fantastically sophisticated electronic technology is emerging at a rapid pace, but sometimes our culture (and regulations) can’t quite keep up.

The world of LED digital billboards and signage is in exactly the same boat, it turns out. While early digital signs were extremely basic, with just a few lines of moving text or low-resolution images, the newest equipment rivals the giant flatscreen TV in your living room for its brightness, picture quality and sophistication.

That’s led to some backlash in communities across the U.S. as the new and revolutionary outdoor signs begin to take the place of traditional, static billboards or other Out of Home (OOH)-category signage.

Many of us have seen new LED signs that appear to be too bright for their own good, especially at night, and that has led manufacturers, trade groups and sign professionals to all take a cautiously proactive approach to promoting the new and effective world of LED signs, as well as making sure users program the signs to safe specifications.

“Local business owners and large corporations alike turn to digital billboards as an effective way to reach a large number of customers with the dynamic, real-time messages they like,” says Joni Schmeichel, marketing strategist for the billboard market with Brookings, South Dakota-based Daktronics, one of the major providers for LED equipment in the country.

“Public safety organizations rely on them to bring fugitives to justice and provide emergency information. Media outlets use them to share news and information as it happens,” she adds. “There will definitely continue to be challenges with zoning and regulation but we have seen a lot of headway.”

Primarily, it’s the occasionally overwhelming brightness of these huge signs–some of which are now large enough to replace existing, full-size billboard advertisements–that’s the biggest concern to regulators, especially when they’re not correctly calibrated. Regulations also dictate that roadside signs display static images, unlike those giant video images you may have seen in Las Vegas or at stadium LED screens.

“When it comes to new signs, like all forms of expression, there will be debate, and digital signs are no exception,” says Ken Klein, chief counsel with the Washington, D.C.-based Outdoor Advertising Association of America. “We have seen major regulatory acceptance over the last decade, at both the federal and state level, but the product doesn’t belong everywhere–and the industry knows that. For the most part, the safety and light issues have been answered and specified in new municipal codes.”

At present, according to OAAA research, there are approximately 6,400 full-size digital billboards across the country, in a national market with more than 400,000 traditional static billboards. The OOH industry generated some $7.3 billion in revenue in 2015 and billboards accounted for 65 percent of that figure–but digital LED signage still occupies just 1 to 2 per cent of the nation-wide market.

The roll-out of new signs has practically doubled in the past five years, however, and manufacturers say they expect to consume an even larger chunk of the traditional billboard market as technology improves, costs go down and public acceptance of the signs becomes more widespread.

Timur Colak, CEO of Doral, Florida-based LightKing Outdoor, another major manufacturer of LED signage, says that those eye-blazingly bright signs you occasionally spot are evidence that even installers and customers haven’t quite figured things out, much to the detriment of the entire sign business.

“Brightness is getting better, but it should never be an issue, unless someone is doing something wrong,” Colak says. “The new range of signs can produce 7,500 nits (luminescence units) during the day, but they should go down to 750 at night, and when you see ones that are really, really bright, someone’s made an error that could be easily fixed in 10 seconds. One bad apple creates an X against the entire industry, so we need to get better at training both installers and the people who buy signs.”

In LightKing’s case, working with a cutting-edge Chinese manufacturing partner to build new equipment, the images on an LED billboard are all controlled by redundant software, allowing the signs to be programmed, cycled or adjusted remotely–Colak’s company can automatically receive an email message to help change settings or manage any brightness issues, often before the client even knows there is a problem.

Hoping to stem any concerns that might emerge as more and more businesses recognize both the value and the huge advertising impact LED billboards can have, Colak has worked with his customers to help local governments develop fair but inclusive ordinances covering the still-fresh technology.

“There’s definitely a dynamic environment in terms of codes–some are more restrictive, because they don’t want to be like the Las Vegas Strip, and then some see signs in the next town over and wonder if they should allow them, as well,” he says. “So we’ve developed a template document for signage code and encouraged our customers to help influence local code. They can educate officials as to why they’re beneficial, how they can bring in more revenue and contribute more taxes, and how owners can manage and set the brightness levels.”

Klein says the regulatory environment has been aided by federal government studies that show that the new electronic billboards pose no more safety issue–drivers being distracted by the digital images–than traditional signage, with significant research into accident records to support those claims. Brightness still remains a concern but Klein reiterates that all LED billboards should be equipped with light sensors to gauge ambient light and adjust themselves accordingly.

And as government agencies themselves are beginning to use the signs for public safety efforts–AMBER Alerts, hurricane or tornado safety warnings or law-enforcement campaigns to communicate with the public–Klein says he anticipates greater acceptance for the new signs. He says culture will also dictate some of that change, as it has with other technology.

“LED signage is kind of a modern, cool thing, and the images change–if you grew up using screen and keyboard technology, it’s just an extension of that culture,” Klein says. “It’s a symbol of this modern world.”

Colak also sees the move to LED billboards as a part of the transformation of the overall advertising business, as personal digital technology and OOH media begin to merge.

“In order for OOH to continue to exist, it has to become digital–it’s an extremely effective form of advertising, especially when linked to new, dynamic campaigns,” he says. “The newest signs will recognize who’s passing from information on their smartphones and customize the messages as a result, and you definitely can’t do that on static billboards.”